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Tucked away between Wylie and Bedford avenues in the Hill District is a suburban-style cul-de-sac called Francis Court that looks more like Penn Hills than the Hill District. The 14 homes built there in the 1980s by developer Charles E. Davis are among approximately 500 that he built throughout the city and its suburbs over the course of a career that spanned the 1940s through the 1990s.
Davis was one of a handful of Black entrepreneurs who seized upon the demand for homes among Pittsburgh’s Black middle class: attorneys, doctors, journalists and store owners. The communities that Davis and his contemporaries built endure nearly 70 years later as bastions of Black homeownership.
The subdivisions and homes comprise a little-known chapter in the history of Black housing that often focuses on disinvested neighborhoods and urban renewal.
For much of the 20th century, Black migrants from the Deep South lived in crowded Hill District tenements. Many lacked modern amenities, including indoor plumbing. Jim Crow had a firm grip on the city at the time and Black residents faced discrimination that excluded them from good jobs, schools, public parks and swimming pools – and housing.
Finding safe, decent and affordable housing was hard, even for African Americans with good jobs and healthy bank accounts.
Pittsburgh, like the rest of the United States, experienced a housing boom between 1910 and 1930. While residential subdivisions popped up at Pittsburgh’s margins, inside and outside the city, most of those suburbs were beyond the reach of Pittsburgh Black professionals — not because they couldn’t afford to live in them, but because of racially restrictive deed covenants and mortgage lending redlining.
Language in some subdivision plats, deeds, and standalone restrictions filed in the Recorder of Deeds office barred Black people (and in some cases Jews and others) from owning or renting homes there. In many, the only way people of African descent could occupy a home was as a live-in housekeeper, gardener or chauffeur.
For example, Sewickley developers Ackley and Bradley included 12 covenants in their deeds to buyers. One prohibited the sale or rental to non-whites. Another reads, “No lot or lots … or any building thereon, shall be used or occupied, or permitted to be used or occupied, by any natural persons other than members of the White or Caucasian Race.”
Like many of their contemporaries, Ackley and Bradley allowed for one exception: “The premises may be occupied in part by bona fide domestic servants of another Race employed on the premises.”
City neighborhoods likewise barred Black homeownership.
“The so-called Schenley Farms area was cited as one area in which covenants operate. Contracts in this area are not drawn specifically toward Negroes, although they are constructed to block Negro occupancy,” Pittsburgh Urban League Executive Director R. Maurice Moss told a Congressional committee in 1947.
Beating a path to the suburbs
Throughout the United States after World War II, whites pulled up stakes in cities and headed to the suburbs. Blacks did too, thanks to people like Davis. He was born in 1921 in the Hill District. After returning to Pittsburgh in 1946 from serving in the Corps of Engineers during World War II, Davis became a bricklayer like his father.
He also laid the foundation for a career that made him a pioneer in the city’s Black suburbanization movement. Even today, a visitor to one of Davis’s subdivisions can meet people whose parents or grandparents bought a home there. Some even remember Davis himself.
In 1947, Davis and his wife Alease moved into a home in Penn Hills, just across the Pittsburgh city line. It was a fashionable cottage that Davis had built with his father, Fred. The Lincoln Avenue home became the headquarters for the Charles E. Davis Construction Company, founded in 1956.
Fred and Charles Davis had been subcontractors to one of the region’s biggest suburban developers: Sampson Brothers. Orin, Harold, Glenn, and Stanley Sampson built some of the area’s earliest and largest subdivisions, including Garden City. The Sampsons also were among the first commercial developers in Monroeville.
“They were building foundations out here in Churchill for a company, well known at that time, by the name of Sampson Brothers,” says Charles W. “Chuck” Davis, Charles Davis’s son.
“So Orin took a liking to my father and he told my dad that he had a parcel of land, which was Blackadore, Blackadore Farms at the time,” Chuck Davis says. Also located in Penn Hills, Blackadore was once a large fruit farm. “Orin Sampson purchased the property off of Mr. Blackadore and he started my dad out with the first subdivision.”
The Sampsons created straw companies – the Orin Land Company and the Harold Land Company – to assemble parcels that they then sold to Davis. They did this because many whites would not sell land to Blacks.
“The guy who owned the property, they wouldn’t sell to a Black guy or a person of color,” Chuck Davis explains. “One of Sampson’s guys would come in and buy the property and then they’d sell it to my dad.”
Blackadore Estates occupies about 14 acres. “New Homes for Colored,” read the ads Davis placed in Pittsburgh newspapers. The Pittsburgh Press reported that Davis was offering three six-room models: two stories, ranch style, and split-level. The Sept. 29, 1957, headline reads, “First Negro Plan Opens in Penn Twp.”
Black suburbanization trend
Bolstered by a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision ending racially restrictive deed covenants and a growing civil rights movement, Black homeownership expanded in the 1950s.
In 1953, white builders affiliated with the Pittsburgh Home Builders Association formed Private Housing Inc. to produce what newspapers hailed at the time as pioneering developments. “Pittsburgh today was credited with blazing the trail for a private housing program for Negroes that has spurred similar projects across the nation,” wrote the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph in 1954.
The new company developed Midtown Square, the first Hill District housing targeted to African Americans who were to be displaced under the city’s emerging urban renewal plans.
The city council authorized the sale of city-owned lots to Private Housing, including 44 lots in a subdivision first platted in 1907. After assembling the lots, the company sold them to Park Builders, which constructed a suburban-style subdivision. Sandwiched between Wylie and Webster avenues, the city renamed Entress and Falba streets “Midtown Square.”
Midtown Square made an indelible impression on historian and Hill District native Ralph Proctor. “That was a strange group of middle-class houses,” he recalls. “When I was a kid … we’d often go up there and make a detour through this neighborhood since it was so different from the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.”
Elsewhere in the city, Pittsburgh Courier executives backed the construction of Pittsburgh’s first cooperative housing development, Belmar Gardens in Lincoln-Lemington. Construction began there in 1953 on 118 homes. The new development offered Black Pittsburgh professionals fashionable housing close to the Hill and Downtown.
Unlike Midtown Square, Belmar Gardens was conceived of and developed by Black entrepreneurs. Its founders included Pittsburgh Courier columnist Paul L. Jones and Maybelle H. Nunn, the widow of Courier Editor Bill Nunn Sr.. Their daughter-in-law Frances Nunn also was a founder.
Though federal law prohibited racial restrictions in FHA-insured housing cooperatives like Belmar Gardens, it became a predominantly Black residential subdivision. Pittsburgh planning officials continue to refer to the development as a successful example of affordable housing as the city grapples with a shortage.
Black enterprise built Black communities
Unlike earlier urban ghettoes where Black residents found themselves living involuntarily, Black suburbs were highly prized. Frank Garnett’s family moved to Academy Heights in 1979. His parents heard about the neighborhood by word of mouth from friends who were already living there, the McClungs and the Mungins.
“It was very hard to get a house up here because mostly all of the families kept it directly in the family,” Garnett recalls. “So like myself, my father moved away and I inherited this house. And several other people that I grew up with, that are my age, inherited their houses the same way.”
Garnett remembers Davis, who developed the subdivision starting in 1961. “He put his stamp on a lot of the homes here. And he was an excellent contractor,” Garnett says.
Marcia Cereza, who lives in Blackadore Estates didn’t know Davis personally but she knows that he built the home where she lives. Standing in her front yard, Cereza points up and down the street to homes owned by the children and grandchildren of original residents. “These are the houses that have been handed down to the children,” she says.
Cereza lives next door to Lois Christian. Her late husband, John Christian, was a popular WAMO radio personality known as “Sir Walter.” Christian bought his home from Davis in 1961.
“There were a lot of progressive Blacks at that time,” explains Chuck Davis. “You had people like Sir Walter, they called him Sir Walter Raleigh, he was [on] Channel 11 news many years ago. Of course, he started out on WAMO as a disc jockey.”
Davis sold suburban homes to Steelers scout Bill Nunn Jr. and former Steeler William “Willie” McClung. Longtime Pittsburgh Public Schools principal Theodore Vasser also bought a Davis home. Throughout the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Courier’s society pages named a veritable who’s who of Black professionals living in Davis subdivisions: pastors, business executives and corporate managers.
Charles E. Davis built about 500 homes in Pittsburgh and its suburbs. His developments include homes in West End’s Harlow Village and townhouses built under contract with the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The URA projects include two East Liberty developments, a row of townhouses in Homewood, and clusters of single-family suburban-style ranches and split-levels in the Hill District, including the Francis Court cul-de-sac.
Davis’s resume also includes building 19 single-family homes in Washington, D.C. Work in Pittsburgh slowed down after he completed his first subdivisions and the builder looked for opportunities in the nation’s capital. There he partnered with Ernest C. Dickson, a prominent Black attorney and real estate broker best known for leading the annual Capital Classic football games.
Academy Heights was the jewel in Davis’s portfolio, though.
“He felt that that was the epitome, that was the highlight and high time of him being in business,” his son explains. “I guess you could say that that was his joy.”
Chuck Davis still lives in the home his father built. He’s proud of the legacy that his family built. He’s proud that his father, who died in 2002, had the skills and resources to provide an essential service for aspiring Black homeowners looking to live the suburban dream.
Says Davis, “My dad, I guess, filled that gap, you know, to where we were able to live or have neighborhoods the same as, you know, the white neighborhoods.”
David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.
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